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Travel

The Azores: A Tapestry of Islands

Islands so remote that when pirates first stumbled upon them they believed they had found Atlantis


A visit there provides a rare glimpse into the evolution of an island. Just over 50 years ago, a volcanic eruption that lasted 127 days added more than another square mile to the island

Imagine a place so beautiful that hardened sailors were moved to express themselves through art; a lush and verdant archipelago where geothermal waters provide natural renewable energy and a place so calm and friendly that everyone has time to say hello and perhaps share a drink or two.

This is no notional utopia, I have seen this place and it is just a four hour flight from the UK. It exists on top of some of the tallest volcanic mountains in Europe that surface on the turquoise waters of the middle of the Atlantic. They form the nine islands of the Azores archipelago and their majestic peaks are the homeland of the Azorean people who are descendents of the early Portuguese and Flemish settlers who arrived in the 15th century.

 


 

The islands are so remote that when pirates first stumbled upon them they believed that they had found the lost city of Atlantis. Perhaps surprisingly, given the islands’ proximity to North Africa, the Azores are on the European continent and are an autonomous region of Portugal, some 800 miles away.

It was recently my good fortune to visit three of the nine distinct islands during my two week stay but even then it felt like a whirlwind tour with barely enough time to capture the essence of the place.

My first port of call was the largest island, São Miguel. Also known as ‘The Green Island’, this long thin strip of land on the eastern side of the archipelago is, relatively speaking, the most developed of the islands. On its western edge is the capital city of Ponta Delgada which is home to the João Paulo II International Airport and by default, the tourist heart of the Azores.

The city offers an abundance of museums, historic churches and monuments such as the imposing 16th century ‘Castelo de São Brás’ fort, one of many built to deter pirates, and the 18th century City Gates ‘Portas da Cidade’. This is also the place to explore the city’s cobbled streets and quaint craft shops on Machado dos Santos Street. Here you’ll find modern hotels, restaurants and enjoy a pleasant, if somewhat limited nightlife.

Beyond Ponta Delgada it soon becomes clear why São Miguel has been nicknamed ‘The Green Island’, for this is the location of one of the most awe-inspiring geological features on the island, the Vale das Furnas – a lush tropical garden at the bottom of a huge volcanic crater, or “caldeiras”, where warm water bubbles in brooks. It is here you’ll also find the idyllic Parque Terra Nostra, where a riot of exotic tropical plants nod haplessly in the breeze alongside elegant hedges of Camellia.

The constant rising steam within the “caldeiras” is a reminder of the Azores’ volcanic origins, so it will come as no surprise to learn the delicious flavour of the local “cozido das Furnas” – a stew slowly baked in a “caldeiras” is one of the island group’s most famous delicacies. A cozido is a mixture of chicken, beef, pork, sausage, carrots and yams wrapped in layers of cloth, placed in a cauldron and then lowered into the ground. Seven hours later the meal is ready to serve.

Without doubt, the most attractive site on São Miguel – and perhaps all of the nine islands – is at the picturesque village of Sete Cidades (meaning seven cities). The best views are from the Madrugada Miradouro – the lookout point – of Vista do Rei (King’s View Lookout).

Overlooking two dramatically beautiful volcanic craters, the views are absolutely breathtaking. And as with most things this beautiful, there is a legend. This one involves a couple of star-crossed lovers; a beautiful princess who fell in love with a shepherd, but who was forbidden by her father from marrying. The king however, did permit them to meet one final time when her tears ran blue – forming the larger lake. The luckless shepherd’s tears were green, and filled the smaller crater. This is understandably, a popular spot so try to visit later in the day when you are more likely to have the place to yourself.

From São Miguel it was only a 1 hour flight to Faial, often referred to as ‘The Blue Island’, the favoured resting place of mariners from all over the world. I mention this because it was in Café Sport – known locally as Peter’s Café – overlooking the marina at Horta one evening, that I discovered it is one of the most popular watering holes for the international yachting fraternity. Upstairs is another little known treasure; a small museum displaying scrimshaw artefacts (carvings made by sailors from whalebone or ivory), an ancient craft that continues in much the same vein to this day.

But Peter does more than just offer hospitality and craftwork to his discerning customers. He also runs a popular whale watching company, taking groups out in his 13 metre, 24-seater catamaran, the ‘José Azevedo’, to watch sperm, blue whales and dolphins from April to October.

Whaling was once a substantial industry in the Azores but it was finally banned 25 years ago and harpoons have been replaced with cameras. Sightings are not guaranteed but we were greeted by a couple of sperm whales and some curious dolphins who playfully danced around the catamaran which, our guide told us, always aims to keep a respectful distance between the whales and the boat. “The only problem is the whales,” he told us. “They take no notice of guidelines.”

It was both delightful and tantalizing because though they surfaced frequently they disappeared so quickly that most of my camera shots ended up as images of rippling blue waters. The tour ended with a visit to some volcanic caves carved in the cliffs, where small colourful birds, lizards and bats blinked back at us from the crevices in the rocks.

Faial has other secrets too. Right in the middle of the island is a large dormant crater, referred only to as the ‘Caldeira’. The approach is through a shaded tunnel but the gush of light that shines out from a scoop-shaped gash, made phenomenal viewing once my eyes were able to adjust. Trust me, it is hard to come to terms with the fact that 1400 feet below at the bottom of the caldeira, where a new forest and lakes have emerged, the trees that looked like small plants are actually hundreds of feet high.

Over on the western side of the island is the desolate, ruined village of Capelinhos. A visit there provides a rare glimpse into the evolution of an island. Just over 50 years ago, a volcanic eruption that lasted 127 days added more than another square mile to the island. It left the area littered with pumice stones, but any thoughts I entertained about bringing some back for my bathroom disappeared when our guide gently but firmly reminded us not to remove anything from the site.

The next morning I took the ferry for a day trip to Pico, appropriately dubbed ‘The Black Island’, where the tortured topography of the terrain is dominated by its towering volcano, which at 2351 metres is the highest point in Portugal.

Touring the coastal roads of Pico it’s easy to see the contrasts with the other islands. This, the second largest of the archipelago, is the youngest at just 700,000 years old, and therefore the least fertile. Minor eruptions over the last few hundred years have created beds of lava quaintly referred to by the islanders as the ‘mistérios’. Yet the inhabitants of Pico have used the volcanic rock to build their homes and as you tour the island you will see an abundance of distinctive black houses and churches with their features picked out in white.

Pico – somewhat improbably – is also a popular wine growing area famed for its Verdelho grape, which Franciscan friars brought to the Azores in the 16th century from Cyprus. In most wine making regions wine producers are faced with chalk, lime or gravel, sunshine or shade. But here the whole island is composed of thick basalt, porous basalt and weathered russet basalt. The ‘terroir’ – the earth, is a dense mesh of volcanic lava, full of volcanic stones and the Atlantic winds can be far too harsh and salty for burgeoning berries to blossom – hardly ideal conditions, yet the result is highly drinkable.

Just south of the main village of Madalena where the ferries arrive from Faial, the vineyards have become the island’s most beautiful treasure and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The viticulturalists had cleared the land of these big black basalt stones and used them to build higgledy-piggledy low walled enclosures that protect the vines from the wind and thanks to their heat retaining properties, provide extra warmth to help the grapes ripen. And best of all, some of the island’s best wines cost just a few euros a bottle.

As I left the island on the top deck of the ferry from Madalena to Horta, enjoying the passing views of Pico’s volcano while the Atlantic winds tussled my hair, I vowed to return someday to explore the remaining islands within this breathtaking archipelago.

- Peter Holthusen